Auburn physics professors receive nearly $900k in federal funding to develop fusion as energy source


(Auburn University researchers are participating in an experiment at the DIII-D National Fusion Facility. Pictured, from left to right, are DIII-D Collaborator Tyler Abrams, Professor Stuart Loch, Graduate Student Curtis Johnson, Professor David Ennis and Auburn alumnus Jeffrey Herfindal, who now works full-time at DIII-D.)

AUBURN, Ala. (WRBL)– Fusion is the mechanism that powers the sun. A worldwide effort to make it a reliable energy source could move closer to reality with the help of two Auburn University physics professors.

David Ennis and Stuart Loch, have been selected as recipients of a competitive $879,826 grant from the Department of Energy.

The project is a collaboration between Auburn plasma physicists and the DIII-D National Fusion Facility, located in San Diego, California. It is designed to develop fusion energy by utilizing ultraviolet spectroscopy to accurately measure the amount of tungsten in the plasma edge.

The experiment is part of an increasing effort across the globe to harness that power as a sustainable source of energy. One key requirement for future fusion reactors is to ensure that material from the walls of the vessel does not erode into the plasma volume where fusion is occurring.

“The element tungsten is a leading candidate for a first-wall material in future fusion reactors because it has the highest melting point of all metals, but it can still be eroded and decrease the overall performance of a plasma,” Ennis said.

The research combines multiple areas of expertise existing within the Auburn physics department, including experimental plasma physics, atomic physics predictions and spectroscopic interpretation, to inform experiments being conducted at a large-scale national facility.

The project originally began with support from the Auburn University Intramural Grants Program, which led to the work becoming federally funded by the Department of Energy.

“The Auburn internal grant supplied funds to purchase an ultraviolet survey spectrometer that yielded pilot data for a full grant proposal,” Loch said. “Thus, Auburn funding was key in launching this project to obtain DOE funding.”

The new federal funding will allow Auburn researchers to permanently install a new ultraviolet spectrometer with much higher precision on the DIII-D tokamak experiment.

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